Sen. Richard Shelby’s official ascension as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday was much more than a Capitol Hill version of musical chairs.
The committee is one of the most powerful in Washington, controlling the levers of federal spending, at least in the upper chamber.
“It’s a reasonably big deal,” said William Stewart, a University of Alabama political scientist. “Not even being chairman, he’s already been able to bring a lot of pork back to Alabama. This will ensure the continuation of that.”
Shelby, a Republican from Tuscaloosa, claimed the gavel after poor health forced the resignation of previous Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). Shelby — who had been vice chairman of the committee prior to 2015 when Democrats controlled the Senate — won the backing of his fellow Republicans on the committee Monday evening and the full Republican caucus at a weekly luncheon Tuesday.
The Senate affirmed it on a voice vote Tuesday afternoon.
“My colleagues have placed their trust in me to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee, and I am honored to serve our nation in this new capacity,” Shelby said in a statement. “This is a remarkable opportunity. I look forward to working with Vice Chairman [Patrick] Leahy and the entire committee as we continue the practice of writing and approving bills that responsibly allocate funding for the activities and duties of the federal government.”
It is the capstone of a career that may well end at the conclusion of the 83-year-old senator’s current term. It is his fourth committee chairmanship, a rarity in the Senate. Previously, Shelby has chaired the Banking, intelligence and commerce committees.
That he has chaired so many different committees is a testament both to his longevity and rules put in place by the new Republican majority elected in 1994 limiting committee chairmen to six years. Prior to that, senators with long tenures tended to hold on to coveted chairmanships for years or decades.
In addition to chairing the full Appropriations Committee, Shelby will take the helm of its Subcommittee on Defense, an important perch for a state that has important defense interests in Huntsville, a large military base in Montgomery and a shipyard in Mobile that builds Navy ships.
Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) congratulated Shelby.
“Over the years, Senator Shelby has been a steadfast champion for Alabama’s priorities, and I have no doubt his efforts will continue in this prestigious position,” he said in a statement.
Stewart said Republicans long have railed against spending, particularly pork-barrel spending.
“But when it comes to home, they certainly don’t apply that maxim consistently,” he said.
Still, Stewart noted, chairing the Appropriations Committee does not have quite the luster of previous eras. Reforms adopted by Congress have severely curtailed spending directed specifically by individual members of Congress.
What’s more, with the national debt hitting $21 trillion and projected to grow even higher over the next decade, Stewart said the ability to control spending might be more important than skill at bringing dollars back to Alabama.
“There’s not just a pot of money there waiting to be taken,” he said. “Because there’s just not money there. …I certainly hope that Sen. Shelby will use this new position of leadership to rein in excessive spending, because it certainly needs to be done.”